AFTER a two-year break from the SBL, Mark Utley is back and in charge of a Kalamunda Eastern Suns team with potential for further growth under his guidance and that all starts with what looks an impressive frontcourt at his disposal.
Following his run coaching the Rockingham Flames where on several occasions he had them close to at least reaching a Grand Final, Utley decided to take a break at the end of the 2016 season.
He has spent the past two years coaching the Perth Wheelcats but he always had that desire to be back in the SBL as a former player with 289 games of experience at Stirling, Mandurah and Geraldton, and then as a coach.
When contacted by the Eastern Suns, he liked everything about the opportunity and what had been built in recent years under Michael Clarke.
He jumped at the chance to build on that further as they chase that elusive finals appearance.
“Kalamunda heard I was interested in returning to coach in the SBL and when I chatted with them it sounded like the perfect club to me,” Utley said.
“They had really liked that Michael Clarke over the last few years had blooded 20 to 30 players to gain SBL experience so it wasn’t going to be a case of taking over young guys who hadn’t stepped onto an SBL court.
“There were some guys from the outside looking in that I was really excited to work with, especially Louis Timms.
“I have followed him for years and I really wanted to work with him and then there’s the people like Ryan Blanchett and Logan Viskovich who are young guys that want to keep developing. That helps the mantra that I’ll be looking to preach.”
The game style the Suns played under Clarke might not have always been spoken highly of in some quarters, but what it did was enable his team to become competitive while developing young players into being able to find their feet at SBL level.
The growth was clear over Clarke’s four-year journey in charge and now Utley is looking to build on what is already there, he certainly doesn’t plan on starting from scratch.
“The good things from the game plan under Michael we won’t be getting rid of, like the ability to shoot the three and push the ball. That’s still sort of what I’m looking for and now they are a bit more mature, we can put in some more defensive reads and strategy and see how we go,” he said.
“Michael had to choose the game style that suited their program at the time for where they were at, and that enabled them to fast track their guys into the ability to be competitive.
“They missed out on the finals by one game last year but they had two quality imports in Kevin Davis and Courtney Belger. Neither of those guys are back this year so for us we have our own challenges because they were two of the best imports in the league.”
While replacing last year’s imports in Davis and Belger is Utley’s biggest job, he has already signed 24-year-old guard Josh Braun while they remain on the lookout for a big.
But that frontcourt already looks impressive with Louis Timms, Corey Easley, Ryan Blanchett and Cooper Lowe with an import to come and it can become a great strength of the Suns.
“Even though we are starting the season with only one import, with Corey I’ve still got a five I can put out there that I think can beat most teams on any given night,” Utley said.
“With Logan (Viskovich) and Ryan who are flexible across positions and Louis, then I like some of young kids coming through and we’ve got a big guy who has been around for a years Cooper Lowe.
“We’ve got a good young guard Carl Aylett plus all of our fringe guys. So if we maintain our intensity we can win some games and then after four or five weeks add this second import and continue to push.”
Utley already is looking forward to seeing what Braun can provide the Eastern Suns on the floor.
Coming off a strong college career at Grand Canyon University where he averaged 14.1 points and 4.6 rebounds a game while shooting at 42.7 per cent from the field, 38.1 per cent from three and 81.3 per cent from the line, Utley thinks he’ll be an ideal fit for his new club.
“We’ve signed our first import, Josh Braun, and are just waiting for his contract before he flies over. I’m really excited about him and he loves the game of basketball,” he said.
“He keeps messaging us about how he wants to get out here as early as possible and he’s been a leader at the college he was at. He’s a really good three-point shooter and this league is about shooting, and generally always has been.
“We are just waiting for him to get that final sign off and he’ll be on a plane out here with his wife to experience what it’s like here. I think he can go on to a bigger contract in years to come.”
While Utley now doesn’t expect the Suns’ second import to be here in time for the start of the season away to the Mandurah Magic on Saturday March 16, he is looking forward to adding that one final piece.
“In terms of our second import, we are looking to add a big guy. We had one who I think would have been pretty special picked last December but he’s decided to do a post-grad in chemistry at college which meant he wouldn’t be able to play finals for us,” Utley said.
“I tossed up still bringing him out for the regular season because he looks that good but that wouldn’t be fair on all these guys to lose one of their best players come finals time.
“So we are still looking for a big and there’s one we are considering who Josh has recommended. Hopefully we can come to terms with him, otherwise we’ll be back to the drawing board.”
As evidenced last year when the men’s team made a genuine run at a playoff berth and then the Suns women reached the semi finals, the community at Kalamunda gets right behind their basketball team.
That’s something that Utley wants his playing group to fully embrace.
“I love the fact that they are a community. You only travel a couple of minutes up the hill but it seems to be a very isolated community with what they do and how they stick together,” he said.
“A lot of the players like Jono Diaz who is our captain again, bleed for Kalamunda and because the whole club has that community feel, it helps to build that culture that I want the players to own as a team. One of those things is about the ability to be a community team taking on the big clubs of the league.”
Utley is content now to have had two years out of the SBL and to be returning with Kalamunda in 2019 with his passion levels and desire to be in charge of a successful program as high as ever.
“It was really good for me. I got to coach in another context of basketball and kept my hand in it, and I’ve followed SBL still for a number of years as a spectator,” he said.
“That enabled me to take a perspective outside of being involved in it week by week to see where the league wants to go, and what I think my team will be able to do.
“I’m very excited to be back in the league. Living in Mandurah and travelling to Kalamunda three times a week, I’d have to be passionate about what I’m doing.
“It’s that passion that enables to do that and I really like a lot of little things about how I’m already been treated with respected at Kalamunda.
“Even little things like having a key to the stadium so I can get there early and do some shooting with individuals. That excitement and passion for me is certainly back and I’m ready to go. I’m looking forward to the start of the season.”
Utley also can’t speak more highly of his time the last two years coaching the Perth Wheelcats and wouldn’t trade that experience for the world.
“You learn a new context of basketball, but maybe not a lot that might be transferrable skills at that level. But you learn a lot from managing elite athletes who are involved in the Australian programs and how to try and build a culture,” Utley said.
“I took over a team that reminded me in the first to the one I took over in Rockingham who were in a rebuild stage. We got to blood a lot of young guys and hopefully that will hold them in good stead for their seasons coming up.”